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Camboidan-Thai: Modern Conflict Near Ancient Ruins

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Wednesday, 15 October 2008

BBC News

Thais are often surprisingly ignorant of the role they have played in wounding Cambodia’s national pride.”

A long-running border dispute between Thailand and Cambodia has just flared up, with soldiers exchanging shots for the first time. The BBC’s South East Asia correspondent Jonathan Head looks at what caused this escalation of tension.

At the end of a day when two Cambodian soldiers were killed, several wounded on both sides, and 10 Thai soldiers reportedly taken prisoner, the language cooled down.

Instead of Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen’s threat of all-out war, to turn the area around the disputed Preah Vihear temple into a “zone of death”, there was a statement from Foreign Minister Hor Namhong describing the shootout as “an incident between soldiers, not an invasion”, a problem that could be solved.

And from the Thai Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat: “Cambodia is a good neighbour. We will use peaceful means”.

So perhaps a war over a tiny sliver of scrubby hillside can be avoided after all.

It would surely be in no-one’s interests to let the conflict get out of hand.

Thailand and Cambodia share a common culture, an 800km (500 mile) border, trade and investment worth billions of dollars and membership of Asean, the Association of South East Asian Nations that prides itself on harmonious relations among its member states.

Cliff-top temple

But why have relations fallen this far?

The spark was Cambodia’s successful bid to have Preah Vihear listed as a World Heritage site in July.

The 900-year-old Hindu temple had been judged to be on the Cambodian side of the border in 1962 by the International Court of Justice, a decision that has always rankled with Thailand.

It sits at the top of a cliff, and is still only easily accessible from the Thai side.

But the decades of conflict in Cambodia delayed any practical decisions on the temple, which for years was a stronghold of Khmer Rouge guerrillas and littered with landmines.

As peace returned to Cambodia in the 1990s, the government in Phnom Penh started to focus on restoring the country’s rich Hindu-Buddhist heritage, and its potential to attract tourists.

The magnificent temple complex of Angkor Wat won World Heritage status in 1992.

But repeated attempts to get the same status for Preah Vihear were blocked, apparently by Thailand.

The Thais argued that while the ICJ had awarded the temple to Cambodia, it had not ruled on the surrounding land, which also contains a number of important archaeological sites connected to the temple.

Only a joint Thai-Cambodian World Heritage site made sense, it argued.

Thailand dropped its objection this year, a decision that enraged Thai nationalists.

They accused the government of changing its stance to accommodate the extensive Cambodian business interests of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, whose party dominated the cabinet.

The foreign minister who negotiated a joint agreement with Cambodia, Noppadol Pattama, had once been Mr Thaksin’s lawyer. He was forced to resign in July.

But the damage had been done. A hard-line anti-government movement, the People’s Alliance for Democracy, used the issue to mobilise mass demonstrations, contributing to the political upheavals that are still shaking Thailand today.

Khmer legacy

But what about Cambodia? Why is it so strident on the issue?

In part it is driven by historic rivalry between the two countries, in part by more recent friction.

The ancient Khmer civilisation that built Angkor Wat and Preah Vihear dominated this region for five centuries.

Thais used the issue in anti-government protests

It profoundly influenced Thai culture – there are many famous Khmer-style temples in Thailand. And it is a source of immense pride to modern-day Cambodia, which is recovering from decades of national trauma.

Nationalism is an easily inflamed emotion, in a country which has little to be proud of in its recent history.

Thais are often surprisingly ignorant of the role they have played in wounding Cambodia’s national pride.

In the Cambodian view, successive Thai invasions helped destroy the once mighty Khmer empires, and rendered the country defenceless against French colonial conquest in the 19th Century.

Thailand then took advantage of the chaos during World War II to occupy large chunks of western Cambodia, including the ruins of Angkor Wat – it was forced to hand them back when the war ended.

The Thai military often treated Cambodian refugees who fled the civil wars of the 1970s and 80s very harshly – and Thailand backed the remnants of the Khmer Rouge in their struggle against the Vietnamese occupation, so helping prolong the civil war.

Storm of condemnation

There is of course a very different Thai perspective on these events. But they have left a deep pool of resentment in its smaller and much poorer neighbour that is easily exploited by its leaders.

And Hun Sen has proved very ready to do just that. Five years ago anti-Thai riots broke out in Phnom Penh after a Thai actress was misquoted as saying Angkor Wat should rightly belong to Thailand.

Hun Sen was widely blamed for stirring up nationalist sentiments then. He seems to be doing the same now.

On the Thai side, whatever the current government’s real inclinations, it cannot afford to be seen to back down.

Somchai Wongsawat is already battling a storm of condemnation over the way the police dealt with anti-government protests earlier this month.

As Thaksin Shinawatra’s brother-in-law, any concessions he makes to Cambodia will arouse suspicions that he is serving the interests of his family before those of the country.

It is hard to see this conflict being settled quickly.

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